Tangled web for ex-MPs

Election views - online

When is an MP not an MP? Answer: when parliament is dissolved. For all those MPs who have proudly developed personal websites and weblogs, numerous rules must now be followed. As of 11 April, no candidates may refer to themselves as members of parliament until the election results are announced. Domain names with the letters "MP" in them are immediately problematic, as are graphics or text referring to the candidate as an MP.

Surprisingly, it is the leaders of the two opposition parties who have fallen most seriously foul of these regulations. On 11 April Michael Howard's own website (www. michaelhowardmp.com) was still referring to him as member of parlia- ment for Folkestone and Hythe, and the only contact e-mail address on the site was his official, parliamentary address: howardm@parliament.uk. According to the rules for candidates during a general election, e-mail accounts should not in any way be used for political purposes.

Charles Kennedy's personal website (www. charleskennedy.org.uk) was also flagrantly disobeying the regulations. At the top of every page on 12 April, "Rt Hon Charles Kennedy MP" could be clearly seen, and his home page contained a long campaign message encouraging voters to vote Liberal Democrat. He writes that the Lib Dems want a fairer Britain. He could start with his own website.

Labour supporters will be relieved to know that Tony Blair has a cleaner sheet. After years of not having a website, and the embarrassment of Michael Howard's team buying www.tonyblairmp.com, www.tonyblairmp.net and www.tonyblairmp.org.uk, the Labour Party set Blair up with an online campaign diary for the election: www.labour.org.uk/tonyblair, which entirely conforms to the regulations.

But questions remain for other former MPs. They may have suspended updating their websites, but what if they have not got rid of old content? Could information on past campaigns, local activities and speeches in parliament on their websites - clearly identifying them as members of parliament - be construed as campaign material?

Should MPs' weblogs be permitted as publications of record, or should MPs be requested to take down the material in the interests of fairness while an election is taking place?

There is little official guidance, and new candidates could argue that the existence of these websites skews the playing field. If politicians continue to use the internet to communicate with the electorate, then we will urgently need greater clarity on procedures.

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